Food Stamps

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Darlena Cunha is a writer who contributes mainly to the Huffington Post, but one of her latest articles was to the Washington Post. Topic? Her fall from the middle class, and what her experience was like to suddenly be without the security net she and her husband had carefully built for themselves. In her article, Darlena details the steps that contributed to this fall, and the self-imposed shame she felt when she had to pick up food stamps for the first time – in a Mercedes.

Starting Life on a High Note

Darlena wasn’t at all what the stereotype of food stamps depicted: she grew up in a nice neighborhood where more people had the money to get by than didn’t. The concept of failure was a foreign one during her childhood, as she and her peers were used to getting by with what they needed and wanted. As a result, she had the opportunity to go to college because it was expected of her, not because it was seen as a way out, and studied biology and journalism.

She followed the traditional middle class life path after that, getting a decent job at a hospital, moving on to become an associate producer, and climbing the corporate ladder just as was expected given her upbringing. It helped, too, that she wasn’t the only one supporting herself; her boyfriend had a good job and they were set to plan a future together. And even when she became pregnant with twins, life still seemed more than manageable.

The Crash: Going from Everything to Almost Nothing

But just like that, Darlena’s future seemed to disappear from her in front of her very eyes, and she felt powerless to stop it. First came the steep drop in the value of her and her husband’s home because of the housing market crisis, where the value of their home plummeted to $150,000 from $240,000.

The next big hit the pair had to take was the premature births of their twins, with both arriving into the world at only 3lbs. No matter how dedicated Darlena and her husband were at feeding them, the girls just weren’t gaining weight and they faced a crisis: either continue breastfeeding them (a “free” option) and put their lives at risk, or switch to an expensive formula that would ensure the twins would gain weight and move forward. It was a no-brainer of a decision for Darlena, but the dozens of cans each week of formula quickly added up. It didn’t take them long to blow through their savings, leaving them in the precarious position of having to apply for Medicaid and WIC.

Driving There for the First Time

There are many stereotypes floating around about the Welfare Queen or the steak-and-lobster moochers who use their food stamps to sneakily continuing a life of luxury when so many others truly need the assistance. Using this context, it should be said that Darlena and her husband did have a Mercedes, but with several provisos: it was from before their new situation; the car had been fully paid off and selling it to pay for groceries would mean making payments on a car, a debt they couldn’t afford; and the Mercedes was in fine working condition, whereas a new “affordable” car might have to be replaced each year.

Even with that in mind, it doesn’t change the burning shame Darlena felt when she drove to the church to pick up assistance for the first time, and felt everyone’s eyes boring holes into her. Even worse was when she was standing in line at a supermarket, paying for root beer with coupons. A shopper behind her chastised her for her choice, but another shopper came to Darlena’s defense. “Who are you, the soda police?” the stranger said. “Anyone bother you about the pound of candy you’re buying?”

It Can Happen to Anyone

Darlena’s received a lot of feedback from her article, with opinions ranging from supportive to extremely critical. The ones who fall into the latter category accuse her of not really knowing what it’s like to be poor, of not selling her Mercedes, and of still having prospects for the future. But is that really fair? Should being poor have the same face everywhere? Should people like Darlena, who fall unexpectedly on hard times, have to suffer more than most because of their previous perch?

It took a lot of guts to bring even more attention to her story, which involves a Mercedes, but doing so helped shed more light on the issue and continue the conversation. It’s also a perfect example of how losing almost everything can happen to almost anyone, and a lesson in being more careful about judging people. It’s a smart idea to be careful of what you say to people who show up at food banks in a Mercedes, because one day, you could be behind the wheel.

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